Michael Moynihan: Who remembers Burgerland and Mandy's and Mahon before the point?

A picture of a fast-food joint in Cork City in 1984 is like a portal back in time and should inspire us all to preserve images of the city as we know it right now. So get that smartphone out and get snapping
Michael Moynihan: Who remembers Burgerland and Mandy's and Mahon before the point?

Burgerland in Cork City in 1984: The non-ironic pullovers and padded anoraks, the haircuts — the haircuts! — and the man working his way through a cigarette at one of the tables.

It’s a picture that tells a hundred stories. A thousand might have frightened the fire officer.

It’s a photograph of Burgerland, the long-vanished fast food outlet in , and shows all tables occupied on a random day in 1984.

The non-ironic pullovers and padded anoraks, the haircuts — the haircuts! — and the man working his way through a cigarette at one of the tables ... little wonder when the photograph was launched on social media recently it attracted so much attention.

The photograph is like a portal back to the greatest decade in history. Which was exactly what Joe Healy had in mind when he took the picture almost four decades ago.

The reason — do I know anyone in that photograph? — but because Joe’s example should inspire others to emulate his careful curation.

“Going back to the late '70s, even, I was always interested in photographing city streets and urban landscapes,” he told me during the week.

“The buildings that were due for demolition and development were the buildings I was very interested in.

“From that time onwards, I took photographs of places like Merchant’s Quay before it became developed into the shopping centre we know now, when there was a row of buildings along the quayside instead.

“I took photographs of the old Douglas village — before the shopping centres arrived — and other places like the docklands, which has also changed dramatically since those days.

A photograph of the Irish Examiner offices on Academy Street, Cork, taken by Joe Healy in April 2001.
A photograph of the Irish Examiner offices on Academy Street, Cork, taken by Joe Healy in April 2001.

“I’ve always been a believer in ‘once it’s gone then it’s gone’, and that it was important to have a record of those places. I worked in the Examiner for years and when I was there I was very interested in the old glass photographic plates, which would have had a lot of similar pictures of places in Cork which had changed hugely over the years — I scanned in a lot of those plates electronically to preserve them, as much for my own benefit as anyone, I enjoyed looking at them so much.

“I still enjoy taking a stroll through the city early on a Sunday morning, when it tends to be a bit quieter than during the week, to take photographs.”

The irony is that his own background in photography, going back to the late 70s, is itself the kind of apprenticeship which is alien to those reared with the modern smartphone.

When his first child was born, he bought his “first decent camera” to record the milestones, and photography then became a passion.

Over the years, he went into business for himself on Carrigaline’s main street with a photographic studio and at the same time became involved in community matters in the Co Cork town, such as editing the local community magazine.

“That gave me plenty of opportunities to take photographs of local people and places, which I loved doing.”

Interest in community

 The interest in community is another key element in this story. Joe is involved with a couple of Facebook groups —  one dealing with memories of Carrigaline and another focused on the old Cork, Blackrock, and Passage Railway — which showcase photographs, and he’s on the committee of the Passage West Maritime Museum.

That commitment to community and heritage has intersected fruitfully with the interest in photography — to the benefit of all of us now, decades after many of those photographs were taken.

How? While a snap of a fast-food joint mightn’t seem to be the raw material of nostalgia, it’s a picture representing an experience with more resonance for people than your traditional front-page photograph, surely.

Which for some reason makes the commercial backstory to that photograph of Burgerland all the more ironic.

“It’s a really evocative photograph,” says Joe of that Burgerland picture.

It really shows how people dressed and behaved and so on — I saw a few comments on Twitter, for instance, people surprised by the man in one picture having a cigarette and eating a burger at the same time, but that was the 80s for you.

“There’s an irony here, of course, in that a few of those photographs — the ones of Mandy’s and Burgerland — were a commercial enterprise.

“There was an international schoolboys soccer game between Ireland and England which was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and they [Coca-Cola] asked me to cover the run-up to the game from all angles.

“They obviously had a connection with the burger places, which explains why there are good pictures of those.” 

 The photographs Joe took back then he saw “really as my last chance to capture the image of those places,” as he puts it.

“Later on I often went down around the area we know now as Mahon Point, when it was all literally green fields, because from reading about the plans for the area it was clear that it would look very different within a short space of time.

“That was my main aim. I took family photographs for pleasure and with the photographic studio I took pictures of family occasions and so on for business, but I was always conscious with the other photographs that it could be the last chance to get a picture of that particular place.

“It wasn’t as easy then, either. Photography was more expensive — you had to pay for film and pay to have it developed and so on. Sometimes you got stuff printed and it wasn’t up to scratch.

“Obviously there’s a big difference to today when you can download and photoshop your pictures easily on your phone or laptop.”

 This was where I expected Joe to champion the analogue approach and disparage digital. I was wrong, though.

“If someone’s interested enough to capture everyday scenes in Patrick Street or the Grand Parade or wherever on their smartphone, who’s to say they won’t be as evocative in 50 years’ time as the photographs we see now from the 70s or 80s?

“In fact, the one point I would make is that I rue the fact that I didn’t take an awful lot more photographs at that time. Obviously, I couldn’t have known there’d be social media, for instance, which gives a platform to share those photographs — if I had known that was in the future I’d have taken more.

“I was chatting to my wife about it recently, saying I didn’t take photographs of places like Cudmore’s sweet shop in town, for instance, or other long-established businesses which have since vanished.” 

This is the point, surely. We all have the wherewithal to preserve images of the city as we know it right now. Fish a small device out of your back pocket and in a heartbeat you can immortalise a scene that may give your grandchildren pause decades down the line.

And have others frown and shake their heads and wonder: did they really live like that?

Follow Joe on Twitter at @JTPHealy

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